Screaming and Shouting

Moscow was a blast — lots of hard touring but a big old beautiful city with one monument after another and lots of interesting old architecture.  (Not that much interesting new architecture, though.)

On Thursday, after the shaky arrival at our hostel, we walked to Red Square and toured the most famous visual image of Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral.  Afterwards, at 12:50, we realized that the Lenin mausoleum and the Kremlin were both closed, and we’d have to wait until Saturday for both to be open.  The way we realized this is that a guy appeared out of the crowd offering to sell us a ticket to the free exhibit for a thousand rubles.  Then 500.  But it’s free.  We’re paying this much for a line jump?  Is line jumping to see parts of dead people the new theme for the vacation?  Then I asked one of the genuine official line wranglers who said it was closed.  Can you imagine how many languages he can say “closed” in?

So we hopped on the subway and went out to the Novodevichy Convent, which had some extensive exhibits of Orthodox icons and is a beautiful peaceful place just generally.  Just as it closed, the sun came out of the clouds and the light became perfect and the cemetery next door closed.  Timing was not the forte today.

Friday we attacked three museums:  the 19th-20th Century European Art branch of the Pushkin museum, the Ilya Glazunov museum across the street, and the New Tretyakov.  The first wasn’t particularly Russian, but was still a large collection of lots of interesting work.

A few years ago, the Guardian (UK) published a list of the World’s 50 Greatest Works Of Art.  I have not exactly been pursuing them, but I did put them in a file on my computer and as long as we were at the Pushkin, and one of the world’s 50 greatest works of art was, I thought, well, I should pay attention when we walk past.

I have no idea what they were talking about.

Their choice was by a Mr. Cézanne, called “The Plain of the Mount Sainte-Victoire, View from Valcros”.  There are a maximum of 50 works of art in the entire world that are better than this?  I stared at it and stared at it trying to figure out, I mean, it’s OK, it matches the sofa but the Guardian is goofing on the art world.  No wonder “Spiral Jetty” is in there, and “Torqued Ellipses”, but they left out Donatello’s “David” to say nothing of all the great big pieces you’ve ever heard of which are actually famous because they are good, like the Mona Lisa and Guernica and Falling Soldier.

I don’t know if Ilya Glazunov is exhibited anywhere besides his own museum, but it was filled with three floors of paintings and drawings.  There were several monumental pieces with lots of detailed political references in the style of the cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s” (which is quoted, of course), and many simpler pieces of people with big eyes.  He is the Walter Keane of his era, but also the Leroy Nieman and the Gilbert and George and many other big name art sycophants and most of his work you are embarrassed to be looking at, like the National Enquirer or Us in the supermarket checkout line (but never Weekly World News); but there is a 1963 mawkish portrait of a dead tsarovitch that would have entailed some risk to be seen in that year, if that’s actually when he painted it.  (Yes, I suspect self-aggrandizing curating.)

Mostly just sad clowns though.

Finding the New Tretyakov was a little long-winded because the Garmin map had placed it and all the roads in flagrantly wrong places, and omitted two bridges, but it ended up being open later than we thought it would so we went in.  It had an interesting exhibit of posters: our iPhone translation program was constantly busy trying to decipher as many Russian words on posters as possible.  Another room featured American artists from Russian families, like Mark Rothko.  Another Russian-American artist was a guy we hadn’t heard of, Pavel Tchelitchew, who had some interesting 1930’s works that would remind you of Body Worlds.  The permanent collection included a reproduction of a 1930s exhibit of constructionist sculptures, the sculptures remade and positioned from photos of the original exhibit.  We were pretty worn out after all that, and Lonely Planet’s favorite Georgian restaurant was nearby, and we had lots of good food.

Saturday we returned to Red Square, and got in line to see Lenin.  It took about an hour to go through the line, and about 30 seconds to walk through the otherwise dark room where his head and hands are brightly lit to eerie effect.  Then we got Kremlin tickets, checked out several cathedrals inside, including one where most of the tsars are buried.  After that we got tickets to see the Armory, a museum where there was lots of state jewelry, including Faberge eggs, a huge room showing various diplomatic gifts given from Europe through the centuries (at least half made by German artisans), a few thrones, and carriages spanning 300 years.  No time to see the diamonds.  You go blind from that many jewels anyway.

Another hard day of touring — we headed for a nice Russian restaurant, but didn’t have dinner jackets with us, so we settled for an adjacent Azerbaijani restaurant:  Caucasus food again.

When we returned to our hostel, our room door was ajar.  There were different people inside, and all of our stuff was gone.  There was a note on the door that it had all been moved to a different room.  We had to go get the key to the new room, where we found everything in good shape.  The new room had a double bed — perhaps they wanted us to have that because we’d grumbled earlier about their assumptions that two guys wouldn’t want a double.  But moving all of our stuff with no notice made us grumble even more.  Strange place, that hostel.

I mentioned earlier that the subways run every two minutes.  That turned out to be the case on all lines on all days at all times of day that we were riding subways.  It’s so much nicer when you don’t have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a train.  It was actually very impressive.  Each station is differently decorated, and they’re all pretty monumental.  Maybe someday we’ll just go on a tour of Moscow metro stations.

Sunday we went to an outdoor market located well outside the central area, on the advice of the hostel operator (it was in the Lonely Planet book as well).  It turned out to be an excellent place to buy souvenirs:  good prices, lots of what I suppose is high quality, and many things to choose from in very close proximity.  Again, we headed for a nice Russian restaurant, but it was closed, and we settled for a nearby tourist restaurant, because we had a train to catch and didn’t have time to mess around.  The tourist restaurant was on Old Arbat Street which is the true Fisherman’s Wharf of Moscow and it was fun to watch all the people go by and pose with fiberglass statues that advertised restaurants.

A man was handing out flyers for a tattoo parlor.  Does anybody besides me think it’s odd that a person’s sense of what his skin ought to look like for the rest of his life, would be influenced by a leafletter on a big tourist street?  I have a lifelong wish to interview unintrospective people about their motives — Woody Allen iconically attempts this in “Annie Hall”.

I really enjoyed Moscow.  It seemed like the residents enjoy it as well.  It’s very backwards for the big city people to be less threatening in their postures than the ones farther away.  Imagine if New York City behaved more like Mankato.  We had espresso and fresh-squeezed juice every day (for a price).